Darkness between the frames – the return of Utopia

Posted: July 18, 2014 in watching
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I love good television, but for the first decade of the 21st century it felt like all the best stuff came from the US. Recently that’s changed. Obviously there are the Scandi-dramas much beloved by Guardian readers, TV critics and, well, me. But Channel 4 and its subsidiaries have also upped their game with shows like Misfits and Top Boy. Among the highlights was last year’s conspiracy drama Utopia, which returned to our screens this week, and did so in spectacular style.

Nightmarishly thoughtful

Utopia is a dark, twisted drama with a speculative thread, about a conspiracy to unleash terrible things on the world for the sake of a supposed greater good. I wouldn’t exactly call it noire – it’s too British for that – but it’s clearly influenced by long traditions of crime, conspiracy and horror films. The story works far better if you come to it fresh, but if you want to get an idea of what’s happening Between Screens has a summary and discussion of season two episode one.


This is a smart drama, one that intertwines real modern concerns about population growth with pop culture, conspiracy thriller, re-imagined recent history and a distrust of authority that runs deep in certain parts of the British psyche. This first episode of season two is like watching a moral question explored on screen. How do we deal with the problem of an ever-growing human population? Is there a crisis coming, and if so how do we handle it? And a wider question around this, visible in the characters’ personal relationships – where is the line drawn when you say you are acting ‘for their own good’? From the raising of children to the treatment of politics and population, this last question comes up again and again.

This is a drama that is meant to unsettle, and it does its job.

Beautifully dark

The first series made heavy use of a comic book in its plot. This one starts with an episode framed in old-fashioned 4:3 ratio. The whole thing has an intensity that’s cranked up by devices borrowed from across cinema stylings – you can read more on that from the show’s director here, and see some examples here.

These are devices that create both an absorbing intensity of atmosphere and a sense of distance from the story. As you’re watching, the familiarity of these cultural artefacts draws you in, drags you along. But there was a moment when they first hit, and in reflecting on them afterwards, when they reminded me of the unreality of the show.

Which is probably a good thing. As a certain tabloid seems to have forgotten in its hypocritical fussings over a plot point borrowed from real life, this is fiction. It reflects reality, but it never claims to be real.

Making the effort

Utopia is a show that takes great effort both from creators and viewers. I’m terrible at remembering plot points, and jumping back in after a year left me entertained but confused. I may well need to go back and re-watch the first series before continuing, which will be another six hours very well spent.

This show gives you a lot to think about, and to get the most out of it you have to do that thinking, to connect the pieces together, almost to become part of the conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that is the heart of the show as you look for patterns that may or may not be there.

It’s well worth the effort.

Who else out there is watching Utopia? What do you think of season two so far?

  1. Dylan Hearn says:

    I loved the first series of Utopia. It was beautifully shot, well written and wasn’t afraid to pull it’s punches. I was writing my first novel at the time and had a big impact on me. I couldn’t believe just how brave the writer was. There were scenes which made the viewer incredibly uncomfortable, pushing the border between what is, and isn’t acceptable but never gratuitously. It made me realise that when bad things happen, there are ways of portraying them for maximum emotional impact without glorifying them. Death is horrible and any death should be seen to be horrible rather than just another plot point.
    I thought the first episode of series 2 was good. I enjoyed the period feel and the acting. I’m pretty good at remembering plot points so it felt like a bit of a filler to me (albeit a well written and entertaining filler). I think I’ll be happier when the ‘present day’ story progresses from episode 2.
    For me it will be interesting to see exactly where they take it. The major storyline in series 1 was understanding what was happening, who was behind it and why. All of this is now known, so what new elements will they bring in to keep it interesting and unique. I can’t wait to find out.

    • Like you I’ll be interested to see where they go with this now. Having watched episode 2 it doesn’t feel like much of a step on from the last series, but it’s still impeccably made, and I suspect this is just a matter of getting things moving again. So yes, should be good.

      I think you’ve got a great point about how they portray unpleasant subjects. There’s some outrageous stuff in there, but it’s done in a way that makes you feel outraged rather than excited, and that’s how it should be.

  2. beetleypete says:

    One of my favourite TV shows ever. I am saving the second series on a pvr, so I can watch it all at once. I can no longer tolerate waiting for a week to see what happens next, and as I do not have a streaming service, I would sooner wait until it is over, and watch the lot!
    Good call Andrew, great analysis.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • I’m so used to binge watching series on Netflix or DVD that there’s a pleasant novelty to watching it week by week. Though the novelty might wear off once it gets exciting and I desperatel want to know what’s next!

  3. […] 4’s drama series Utopia shows a very different response. In this, a shadowy group unleashes a conspiracy to brutally cut […]

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